US Needs a Coherent Foreign Policy Strategy

Assessing opportunity costs associated with decisions (e.g., will a given decision worsen prospects for other U.S. interests and would those costs outweigh the benefits of such a decision?) can allow policymakers to make better-informed decisions. Today, the U.S. urgently needs, not a revised national security strategy, but a coherent foreign policy strategy.

If one examines the U.S. National Security Strategy, one finds that the document contains almost no meaningful geopolitical discussion, even as national security cannot achieved in isolation. What happens in one part of the world most definitely can impact decisions and/or events in another part of the world. Nations have economic, political, and military relationships that transcend borders. Information flows around the world in near real-time, and such information can create perceptions that influence the calculations of the leaders of state and non-state entities. Understanding the geopolitical consequences of policy options and leveraging geopolitical linkages is crucial to effective foreign policy decisionmaking. Assessing opportunity costs associated with decisions (e.g., will a given decision worsen prospects for other U.S. interests and would those costs outweigh the benefits of such a decision?) can allow policymakers to make better-informed decisions.

In the Middle East, while the Bush Administration hails the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, that decision had broad implications that will play out for years to come. The removal of Saddam Hussein and chaotic environment that followed in Iraq increased Iran's prospects of achieving regional hegemony. Prior to Hussein's removal, Iraq was perceived by Iran as a powerful foe. Like the U.S. and international community, Iran's leadership believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As Iraq had used such weapons in the past, including during its war with Iran, Iraq served as a deterrent to Iran and Iran's ambitions were far more modest. Iran's primary concern was maintaining sufficient strength so as to be secure from potential Iraqi aggression.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, that all changed. Iran is in a position to pursue regional dominance, and it is aggressively doing so. Moreover, in August 2005, Iran elected radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President.

Questions for historians to debate include:

  • If Iranians believed a radical such as Ahmadinejad might provoke Iraqi aggression, would they have elected him?
  • If Iran's primary foreign policy objective was to deter Iraq, could they afford to have elected Ahmadinejad?
  • If Ahamdinejad were not elected, would the gradual thawing of relations toward the West have continued?
  • If Ahmadinejad were not elected and relations with the West were thawing, would this environment increased the prospects of Iran's student-led democratic movement to gain influence over Iran's destiny?
  • If Ahmadinejad were not elected, would Iran be as aggressive in its nuclear pursuits, especially if it perceived that Iraq would seek to prevent Iran's development of such weapons that would alter the existing balance of power?
  • If the U.S. had not invaded Iraq and the memory of the smashing U.S. victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was how the region's leaders perceived the U.S., would Iran be so willing to take measures that undermine U.S. regional interests and allies and would it be so willing to defy U.S. demands concerning its nuclear program?
  • If the U.S. had retained its traditional approach to military pre-emption (credible and imminent threat to U.S. critical interests), would it have found greater support from the world's nations, ranging from the trans-Atlantic alliance to the world's major powers?

Those are the kind of issues that should be assessed ahead of time in developing a foreign policy strategy. They are not the kind of issues that should be left for historians to debate after a decision has been made at high geopolitical cost.

But that's not all. The U.S. failed to understand the reality of foreign policy linkages. For example, outside of the Middle East, Russia is one of the nations that can exert significant influence over Iran. Russia has supplied Iran with some weapons in recent years, its technicians are involved with Iran's nuclear industry, and Russia still has the capacity to drive down oil prices by increasing its oil production.

Instead, since the 1990s, the U.S. has neglected its bilateral relationship with Russia. Things have especially begun to deteriorate under President Bush's leadership.

  • U.S./NATO intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s was opposed by Russia.
  • The U.S. failed to give Russia unconditional support in its fight against radical Islamist terrorists, some of whom are associated with Al Qaeda, in its semi-autonomous Chechen region. In fact, the U.S., at times publicly called for Russian restraint and Russian negotiations. Russia's leaders see this as a double standard that the U.S. would, itself reject, if it were asked to do so with Al Qaeda. Any U.S. criticism should have been conveyed privately not publicly.
  • Russia's role with respect to NATO is a highly limited one. As a result, Russia sees NATO's continuing expansion into its "Near Abroad" as potentially threatening, because Russia lacks a sufficient voice over decisionmaking. Moreover, as Russia's calculations concerning the Iranian missile threat differ markedly from Washington's—RRussia sees no meaningful threat for another 15-20 years—its leadership assumes that the limited anti-missile systems planned for Poland and the Czech Republic constitute a pilot project of what will eventually be a much larger system that would be arrayed against it. If one keeps in mind Russian historical experience, one can see how Russia comes to such conclusions.
  • The U.S. was the last nation to accept Russia's accession into the World Trade Organization, even as WTO membership was one of President Putin's most important objectives.
  • Russia opposed the war in Iraq.
  • At the time Paul Bremer headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in Russia, Mr. Bremer canceled major oil contracts between Russia and Iraq, harming Russia's economic interests.
  • Today, the U.S. is in the vanguard calling for Kosovo's independence from Serbia. Russia opposes such an outcome.

All said, the basis was laid for increasing Russian "counterbalancing" against the U.S. To date, such "counterbalancing" has been "soft." However, with Russia's planned suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the potential exists for a "harder" military counterbalancing down the road. In this context, Russian cooperation with respect to Iran will likely be modest, except if Iran begins taking measures that would threaten Russian interests.

Iran welcomes this environment and is exploiting its opportunities. Seeing the U.S. as relatively "isolated" on the world stage, it is launching a dizzying array of diplomatic initiatives to preclude an effective economic sanctions regime. It is fostering cooperation with Venezuela, expanding ties to Cuba, reinforcing its relationship with Syria, and entering into increasing contractual commitments with Turkey, Pakistan, and China. Farther down the road, such events could lead to "energy mercantilism" in which competing countries seek to lock up scarce resources. Such an outcome would contain the seeds of future instability.

Overall, the U.S. urgently needs, not a revised national security strategy, but a coherent foreign policy strategy. Such a strategy would need to identify the nation's critical interests, describe the balance of power necessary to improve security and stability and what needs to be done to achieve that balance, outline what the U.S. is seeking to accomplish overall, set forth measures for assessing progress, identify the geopolitical linkages/relationships that could offer synergies for accomplishing foreign policy objectives, and significantly increase the nation's foreign aid budget (possibly double it so as to restore its "soft power" capabilities*)and gear such assistance toward strategic ends, etc. In its dealings with the world, the U.S. will need to embrace long-term and robust engagement. It will need to emphasize leadership through persuasion and credibility, partnership for achieving shared interests, strategic approaches rather than ad hoc "fire-fighting," and base its military policy on the Powell Doctrine and traditional approach to pre-emption.

Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.

Copyright © 2007 Don Sutherland